Exercising after Breast Cancer Treatment

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Today, I found myself running late for a lunch date with a friend–and suddenly, not only was I running late, I was running. Yes, rapidly placing one foot in front of the other, pumping my arms, and traveling along the sidewalk at a pace faster than a walk. My knees hurt, I started to pant, I got a stitch in my side… but I was running. And I realized I hadn’t RUN since treatment, 5 years ago.

    WHOA! What was up with that? Well, first it was the breast reconstruction, and not wanting to chance anything too physical that might damage those healing blood vessels. Then it was chemo, and the host of physical issues that came along with it. Then drug-induced foot pain that made every step feel like I was dancing on hot coals. Then… just plain being out of shape, and getting out of the habit of running. Only today, when I broke into a trot, did I realize how long it’s been since I did something–running–that used to be as regular a part of my life as breathing.
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    Many women going into treatment wonder what shape they’ll be in when they come out the other end. Sure, you wonder if you’ll be alive; the echocardiogram the docs give you before chemotherapy, to see just how much chemical punishment your heart can take, is a reminder that cancer treatment is life or death. Cancer itself is life and death; but so is the treatment. You also wonder if you’ll be able to do yoga, or Pilates; swim competitively, do a triathlon, bicycle, kneel in the garden, golf… whatever your physical pursuit of choice, you wonder if you’ll be able to pick it up again. Will radiation or axillary node dissection make your arm stiff? Will chemo make you permanently weak? And how about those muscles you lost from your belly or back, during reconstruction? Will you still be able to do crunches, or hit a tennis ball?

    Well, from my experience, I can tell you cancer treatment is pretty much like breaking a bone. While your leg is broken, you try to stay in shape, but it’s hard; you’re limited in what you can do. Afterwards, you’ve lost a lot of muscle tone, flexibility, and endurance. So you either bemoan the fact you’re not the person you once were, or you pick up your feet, along with your tired, aching body, and start exercising. Do you jump right back into whatever regimen you were following before that broken leg? No, of course not. You take it easy, start slow, and gradually work up to the level you were at before that skiing accident. AND–you don’t spend a lot of time blaming your leg for being out of shape. You get back into the game, and start playing.

    Getting in shape after cancer treatment is much the same. You’ve been out of action for awhile; you’re tired, and when you start to exercise again, you’re sore. Your endurance is shot. Your skills–be they on the tennis court, golf course, or simply swimming laps in the pool–are rusty. But that’s no reason to point the finger at cancer and feel sorry for yourself. And it’s certainly no reason to give up. If you used to go out and jog 3 miles, and now can’t even run one lap around the track, walk; eventually you’ll run. Play one game of tennis; pretty soon you’ll be up to a full set. Go to yoga or Pilates, and do what you can; there’s no shame in sitting out the poses and positions you’re simply not able to manage yet. The most important thing is to try. And try, and try again. Don’t cry tears over what you can’t do; instead, celebrate what you can. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that you could barely get out of bed. Hey, look at me–5 years after treatment, being late for lunch reminded me, at last, that I still know how to run. I just have to pick up my feet and do it.
Published On: November 09, 2006